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Wednesday, 27 July 2011 13:46

The historical perspective: who’s dry, who’s wet

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Alcohol has historically been slow to come to the mountains — much slower than the rest of the state.

Only two counties in Western North Carolina allow alcohol sales outside town limits.

Statewide, 60 counties allow some form of alcohol sales, even if just beer and wine, throughout the county. Of those, most date back to 1933 — the year prohibition ended. Across the state, dozens of counties and towns held votes in April 1933 to usher in alcohol.

In the mountains, Buncombe County, along with Asheville and Black Mountain, jumped on the post-prohibition bandwagon, as did Hickory.

But the rest of rural WNC stayed dry. Decades would pass before towns warmed up to the idea, voters here and there voting in beer and wine, then later ABC stores, and eventually, in recent years, liquor drinks at bars and restaurants.

Counties, however, remained steadfast. Politics at the county level still bent to the agrarian voting block, likely more conservative and traditional in their ways, compared to more liberal town dwellers. And the business lobby was absent, satisfied with alcohol at the town level where the stores and restaurants were all located anyway.

With one exception: a rash of alcohol votes after WWII. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, a dozen or more mountain counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain among them — held alcohol referendums. All failed and have not been revisited since.

Some towns, driven by business interests, were formed with alcohol as their goal, such as ski resort towns like Seven Devils, Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain. Maggie Valley’s push to become a town in the late 1970s was inextricably wrapped up in wanting alcohol for its tourist trade. Town limits were narrowly drawn to take in the roadside strip of restaurants and motels, paving the way for alcohol for its commercial district.

Graham remains the only totally dry county — not even the town of Robbinsville has legalized alcohol sales. Yancey was in the same boat until last year, when Burnsville voted in alcohol sales.

Clay County, another tiny county with only one town to speak of, broke the mold in 2009. The county leapfrogged past the still-dry county seat of Hayesville and voted in alcohol at the county level.

It’s the only mountain county besides Buncombe to have alcohol, and the only one in WNC to have a successful alcohol referendum since 1933.

Jackson isn’t alone in its foray toward an alcohol vote. Henderson County commissioners just last week decided to put alcohol to a vote of the people there next year during the May primary.

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